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The Guiyang Zero-COVID Bus Crash: A Chinese Tragedy In Three Acts

The city in southern China was put under harsh lockdown earlier this month after just a few positive COVID tests. Then a bus carrying quarantined residents crashed, killing 27. The senseless accident left residents more fearful and suspicious of each other than ever.

​Mass testing in China’s city of Guiyang

Mass testing in China’s city of Guiyang

Jian Fu, Shuyue Chen, Xiao Lin

GUIYANG — Two weeks before the tragic Sep. 18 bus crash in this southern Chinese city, a local resident named Jin was anxiously driving out of her neighborhood. The police officers on duty were blocking the intersection and the area was closed off. Even though her employer had demanded she come to work, the local neighborhood committee had forbidden her from going out. That same evening one of Jin's colleague had been asked twice to get out of a taxi, and had to walk home.

The details of how China's latest lockdown disrupted Guiyang residents sound pointless after Sunday's crash of a bus transporting quarantined residents crashed, killing 27, and sparking a new round of outrage over the country's strict zero-COVID policy. And yet it is worth reviewing what had already happened to life in the city of 4.3 million after just a few cases of the virus were detected.

The real lockdown controls in Guiyang had started on September 5. At 00:43, the municipal government notified a three-day "temporary static management," avoiding the term "lockdown." The headline in the Guiyang Daily reads, "stay still so we can get going soon."

Testing, drones and a hunt for food

The first thing for lockdown control in China is COVID testing. In H’s neighborhood, testing was initially at 5 a.m. every morning. Some communities started even earlier at 4 a.m. The deputy mayor of Guiyang explained that this was "a race against the virus."

Even before sunrise, loud speakers could be heard in residential areas. "My babies, let's go down to get the COVID testing done!" "Building No.11 and 12, go down quick to get your throat poked!" H said the loud speakers and the "daily stabbing" of the tests have been torturous for her mentally and physically.

Food shortages are still an issue.

Niu's neighborhood is the biggest residential complex in Asia, where 9,000 families (30,000+ people) live in 12 skyscrapers. There was mass chaos on the first day of COVID testing, which took 10 hours from 6pm to 4am. Niu's building has 39 floors in total. Because a positive case was found in one building, tens of thousands of people were not allowed to leave their homes, so medical staff went to do the PCR tests, one team from the 39th floor downwards and one team from the ground floor upwards.

What it means to remain at home is also changing. Yang 's block allows her to walk around for the first week, but the second week they are required to remain in the house. She had to be careful when walking her dog, as there are drones patrolling the area every day to find if someone is wandering outside. Once a person is found, within three minutes the neighborhood police will come and ask them to go home. If someone exits the residential area without a permit, they are immediately taken away by the police.

Food shortage are still an issue during lockdown. In the lockdown neighborhoods, one could only “snatch food" on an app every day, and the prices are higher than usual. Food distribution is not standardized, as rumors say some communities (where more "important people" lives) have more deliveries.

\u200bPeople queue for mass testing in Shanghai

People queue for mass testing in Shanghai


Quarantine regime

The mass transfer of people to isolation, which led to the fatal crash, came after Sept. 16, when the Guiyang government announced that it was "determined to win the battle of Zero-COVID", with another document stating that the target date was Sept. 19, one day after the crash.

The situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse since the "Zero COVID" target was announced. Yang had heard that a whole district of residents was taken away just because of one positive case.

"They were not even contact cases! Many had just received their negative testing results." Niu had seen a building of residents in her neighborhood being transferred: "People in blue protection suits formed an endless line, someone was carrying babies, someone with suitcases, and there were children and elderlies. There were at least 3500 people in one building."

Xu, a local resident was transferred a day before the car crash. It was only just a system error of the testing result for his 4-year-old daughter, but in the end, his family and 10 neighboring households were asked to board a transferring bus. The bus had no air conditioning, and everyone was sweating. The driver was wearing a white protective suit and keeping all windows shut – just like on the bus that crashed.

Reporting on neighbors

After the crash, Jin and a friend discussed what to do if they were pulled away to be isolated. The friend said to hide. But Jin said her neighbors, who were usually very kind, were becoming more strict. "From the beginning of the lockdown, there were some who volunteered at night to watch from downstairs to see if anyone was going out," she said. "They were very cautious, and they watched every day to make sure that no one went out."

Niu also thought that it was almost impossible to hide. Even though she lives in the largest neighborhood in Asia, the resident council staff know all her information. She often receives phone calls from the council asking her father, who lives in a nursing home, about his condition, such as whether he has been vaccinated. "It's not the virus that's scary, it's the fear from the people that's scary."

Do not believe in rumors.

The Guiyang government has also announced that it would start creating "pandemic-free zones" in residential neighborhoods that had no positive cases. If an area qualified, residents are allowed to walk around in the area, supermarkets in the community can be opened and restaurants provide take-away food.

Jin realized that this policy had made her neighbors more aggressive. Sometimes when elderly people went for a walk, neighbors would scold them in the community's group chat, saying, "Get your old man home or else we will do something." Even a shop owner received threats to close his shop, so there would be less mobility in the community.

One of the seven criteria to be met is "not to believe in rumors, not to spread rumors, and to be propagators, practitioners and defenders of internet civility."

When the tragic crash happened, Yang said many people in her online community expressed sad. Some after some shared their anger in the groupchat, others reminded them not to use sensitive words, or the group would be disbanded. The discussion went back to how to buy food, and no further complaints were mentioned.

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